For the United States to grow its domestic economy and compete in the global one, lawmakers should end the divisiveness that has created so much uncertainty in the country, and a national priority should be placed on ensuring an educated workforce, according to the four distinguished corporate leaders who spoke at Elmhurst College’s sixth annual Governmental Forum.
Education and the economy, as well as employment, tax reform, government regulation and politics, were among the topics discussed at the Forum on Wednesday, January 30, before a crowd of 800 at the Drury Lane Conference Center in Oakbrook Terrace.
The Forum, titled Jobs, Education and the Economy, was moderated by John Engler, president of the Business Roundtable and former governor of Michigan. He opened the panel discussion by noting that as of that morning, the quarterly U.S. gross domestic product was down by 0.1 percent, while the nation’s unemployment rate remained a stubborn 7.8 percent.
Seeking solutions to revive the economy is vital, he said. “A forum like this at Elmhurst College is very important. Conversations like this make a big difference.”
Joining Engler in the discussion were Douglas R. Oberhelman, chairman and CEO of Caterpillar Inc.; Desiree Rogers, CEO of Johnson Publishing Co., LLC; and Thomas A. Kloet, CEO of TMX Group Inc. and an Elmhurst College trustee.
The panelists, who head some of the largest business organizations in the world, shared their frustration that the political gridlock in Washington, D.C., is causing a drag on the economy.
“We went through a huge fight in 2011 on the budget. We just experienced a bruising presidential election. Then we were faced with the ‘fiscal cliff.’ Each time, corporations held back in hiring and investments because of the uncertainty,” said Oberhelman, whose company is the world's leading manufacturer of construction and mining equipment.
“Our government only seems to work when there are crises,” said Kloet, whose company owns and operates the Toronto Stock Exchange and TSX Venture Exchange. “And even when they deal with crises, they only work around the fringes. For example, with the ‘fiscal cliff,’ they spent most of their focus on tax rates.”
Before joining Johnson Publishing, which publishes Jet and Ebony magazines, Rogers was the White House social secretary during President Obama’s first term, a position that afforded her a firsthand look at the machinations of Washington politics.
“Washington is like the Super Bowl, except there are no time outs, no potty breaks. You have two teams: R and D [Republican and Democrat]. You’re either on the R team, or the D team,” Rogers said.
“We’ve splintered ourselves into special interests,” Rogers said. “Somehow, this country has to come together and work for the good of our children.”
The speakers also called on Washington to ease government regulations and lower corporate tax rates to make U.S. companies more competitive worldwide. They pointed particularly to the regulation and tax advantages enjoyed by the nation’s chief competitor, China.
“We’re going to find ourselves at a competitive disadvantage with China,” Engler said. “It cannot be a game of ‘gotcha’ regulation. … And the federal tax system is a challenge for business.”
Oberhelman said U.S. companies could compete more effectively with Chinese firms if there were fewer regulatory and tax restraints.
“American public corporations are the most competitive mechanisms out there,” he said. “I wish the government would just let us go. Move the regulations out of the way.”
Oberhelman acknowledged that giving tax breaks to big corporations is not popular with the American public.
“Nobody wants to hear about giving big companies and rich people tax breaks,” he said. “But it’s hard for us to compete. Today, our corporate tax rate is 35 percent. In China, Canada, Brazil and many other countries, it’s half our rate.”
The panelists agreed that education is the great equalizer, and that an educated workforce is essential to economic progress. But none was satisfied with the country’s educational system.
“Education is the way, as they say, to lift all boats,” Engler said. “We spend $650 billion a year on public education in this country. We must make sure that we are spending it wisely.”
“We spend $650 billion on education, but we can’t employ people in basic jobs,” Oberhelman said. “Sixty percent of the people we interview for manufacturing jobs [at Caterpillar] are rejected because they can’t read, can’t do math, or fail a drug test.”
The lesson is that workers need to constantly be learning and upgrading their skills.
“You’ve got to be a lifelong learner,” Kloet said. “If you haven’t accepted the fact that education is a lifelong experience, you’re going to get left out.”
The Governmental Forum also provided an opportunity to publicly congratulate Elmhurst College running back Scottie Williams, who recently won the Gagliardi Trophy, given to the most outstanding football player in NCAA Division III. Williams, a senior, won the award for his accomplishments on the field, in the classroom and for community service.
Williams helped lead Elmhurst to its best season ever, with 10 wins, a share of the College Conference of Illinois title, and advancement to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Playoffs.
“A lot of sweat, tears and blood were shed. All the hard work and body aches paid off,” Williams said. “But it wasn’t just me, it was my team. We were successful because we had a blue collar mentality. BCM was our attitude and the motto for our year.”
Engler urged others to follow the example Williams and his teammates set.
“We could all learn from having a little BCM,” Engler said. “Young people like him are our hope for the future.”